By Neil Hawkins

Legacy. It’s a word that we hear often around the Olympic Games, but what does it actually mean?

Is it the revitalisation of cities which, after being at the centre of the world for a month, are left with state-of-the-art facilities at the cost of billions? Residents of Atlanta, Athens and Beijing would potentially contest that.

Or is legacy seeing more people take part in sport? At London 2012, the tag line was ‘Inspire a Generation’. No one can argue those four glorious weeks of Olympic and Paralympic competition were anything but inspiring, however participation numbers in the UK over the last four years have remained largely consistent despite what Sport England recently suggested.

UCFB Wembley’s Desislava Goranova, Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Stadium & Event Management degree and former national champion in rhythmic gymnastics in Bulgaria, has studied Olympic participation in recent years and extensively researched the legacy Olympic Games leave in host countries.

Desislava Goranova, UCFB Programme Leader in Sport Operations, Venues and Events

Desislava Goranova, UCFB Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Stadium & Event Management

She said: “You can’t easily define legacy; you can’t spot it. How can you tell if London has done well? Legacy takes more than four years and the further it gets from the event, the harder it is to say if there is a legacy at all.”

London broke the mould by including legacy as part of the package in its bid to host the 2012 Games, and its success, or lack of, will be measured for years to come. Rio organisers followed suit but currently find themselves leaving a legacy of political upheaval and thousands of displaced locals replaced by glittering venues and premium housing that will more than likely stand empty long after the Olympians and their supporters have left town.

But after stripping away the politics, security and social impact of hosting the Olympic Games, sport participation numbers are perhaps the best way to measure the legacy the Games have on a host country. After all the Olympics is about togetherness and sport, right?

In April this year the latest Sport England Active People Survey (APS), which charts the amount of sport participation in the UK, showed 15.8m people aged 16 and above took part in at least one 30-minute activity of ‘moderate intensity’ a week – 24.3% percent of the UK population. The number is up 343,100 compared to 12 months previous, and the first rise in participation figures since directly after the London Games.

In fact, over the last ten years the APS shows a small increase in participation immediately after the Beijing and London competitions, before then tailing off.

What the data doesn’t consider though is the rising UK population and how participation numbers compare to that. The APS goes back to October 2005 and shows participation numbers at 14.1m, with a population of 60.4m according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). At the time of the 15.8m figure in April, the UK population was 65.1m, a rise of 4.7m – 7.8%.

If participation followed the same trajectory as population, a 7.8% increase would see participation at 15.2m, ever so slightly below the recorded 15.8m. It’s an increase, as officials across the land like to point out, but is 600,000 extra people – 4% – really the achievement it’s made out to be when considering the billions of pounds that have been invested into grassroots and elite sport in that time?

Desislava said: “The data Sport England and UK Sport provide isn’t a true reflection. Both organisations need to do more to get more people involved in sport. Sport England’s new strategy ‘Towards an Active Nation’ looks optimistic. Sport England seem to be objective and fairly critical in acknowledging where participation challenges are and seem to be willing to implement change internally and externally to truly support the nation become more active.

“Maybe that’s what is needed; maybe UK Sport should revise their strategy too and introduce change as a means to progress.”

Of course, the idea of legacy also means inspiring youngsters who see the likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill winning gold medals and who want to replicate that success themselves.

Whereas Sport England help fund the grassroots, it’s UK Sport who fund the elite athletes we’ll be seeing this summer in Rio. How the money is distributed to each discipline is constantly up for debate, and on closer inspection is perhaps not justified or indeed fair.

For this Olympic cycle, UK Sport has ploughed £347m into Olympic and Paralympic disciplines. The £274m that goes towards Olympic sports is split among 20 disciplines – half of which goes towards just five: athletics, cycling, rowing, sailing and swimming. These five disciplines won 33 of the 65 medals collected by Team GB at London 2012. In simple black and white, it would appear money means more medals. But is the money spread fairly? Of the five, only athletics and cycling have seen an increase in participation in the last ten years.

At London, Team GB were represented by 77 track and field athletes in 47 events resulting in six medals, two by Mo Farah. With funding of £27m for Rio, the athletics team has been set a target of 7-9 medals this summer. But despite its funding being increased for all four Olympic cycles since Sydney in 2000, the athletics medal haul reads six, four, four and six respectively.

Desislava said: “It could be criticised that a vast amount of funding is being targeted at a very small selection of elite athletes in a sport with a considerably large capacity. The argument suggests an overspending of money in the sport, pressuring athletes, while failing to fully meet potential.”

Questions over the objectivity of the medal targets and increase in funding have been raised. In London, the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and Laura Trott helped the cycling team win 12 medals, exceeding their target of 6-10, following an increase in funding to £26m from £22m in Beijing four years earlier. However, the team won 14 medals in Beijing, after being targeted six again. The team smashed both targets but saw their medal target remain the same and relatively low compared to other less funded sports, despite the obvious talent pool within the sport.

Swimming was seen as a failure in London, picking up only three medals despite £25m of funding and a target of 5-7 medals. The target wasn’t objective and instead heaped pressure on athletes to repeat a one off success – it came on the back of Beijing where the swimming team recorded their best results in nearly 100 years, winning six medals.

The Olympic team has seen their funding increase from London, but they’ve been set a target of at least 48 medals in Rio, 17 less than they won in 2012. Initially following the 2012 Games, they were set a target of 66 medals for Rio, one better than London. UK Sport say the revised figure doesn’t represent diminished ambition, but is a more probable target.

By contrast, their Paralympic colleagues who’ve been given £73m by UK Sport, around a quarter of the Olympic sum, have been told to better their total of 120 medals from 2012, and collect at least 121 medals.

Desislava said: “Is an Olympic medal that much harder to win than a Paralympic medal to justify the difference? It’s not just Paralympians who seem to maintain and increase success with less funding. There are Olympic sports that do just as well considering their funding – boxing, gymnastics and equestrian for example. These sports either met or exceeded their medal targets in 2012 with a smaller chunk of funding. These athletes have also proved to be successful between Olympiads.”

Can it be argued then that successful legacy only applies to a handful of sports? Archery and canoeing to name two – both of which have seen an increase in participants – will always be on the back foot if their funding is significantly less than that of the mainstream sports. How will results and medals come in these disciplines, and future generations of participants, if the money isn’t there for the sport to grow?

Desislava said it’s a catch 22 situation. She added: “In spite of the constructive criticism, one thing is for sure: Team GB has a great pool of athletes with the potential to excel on the world stage. The nation has the resources too –  financial and physical. With optimised utilisation, that potential can be fulfilled in Rio.”

Desislava Goranova, UCFB Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Stadium & Event Management speaking on Channel 5 News. 

Learn more about the BA (Hons) Stadium & Events Management degree at UCFB Wembley

Read who Team GB’s medal hopefuls are in Rio

Read our debate on whether professional sports should be allowed in the Olympics